Scientist Wins 2021 Pioneer in Basic Science Award for Groundbreaking Inner Ear Research


When Andrew Griffith, MD, PhD, looks at the inner ear, he sees what he describes as “an engineering marvel”.

Just think about it, he says, the inner ear is designed to process sound, which can travel faster than the signaling speed of nerve cells in our bodies. Yet when he began his research career as an otolaryngologist and molecular biologist, little was known about how the inner ear works.

“We couldn’t use classical approaches to understand the organ,” he says. “We cannot do an inner ear biopsy or take tissue from a living person without completely deactivating them and making them severely dizzy, essentially destroying the organ.

Dr Griffith and his colleagues have spent more than a decade researching to better understand the molecular basis of inner ear function. This research has earned him recognition from the Association for Otorhinolaryngology (ARO) Research, which awarded him its 2021 Pioneer in Basic Science Award. The award will be presented at the organization’s mid-winter virtual meeting in February.

Dr Griffith, who is now the Senior Associate Dean of Research at UTHSC College of Medicine, led the research team which collaborated with various other teams to discover the TMC1 and TMC2 genes and their function in the ear. internal. TMC1 and TMC2 code for ion channel proteins expressed in tiny hair cells in the inner ear.

These “hair cells” are the body’s sound sensors, as well as the acceleration of the head, which is key to our sense of movement, gravity and balance. Mutations in these genes disrupt this process and cause deafness. The work recognized by the award was published in a series of five research papers, all of which included key contributions from Dr. Griffith’s lab.

These proteins were truly the holy grail of our field. It is the fastest chain known to man. If we understand how this machine (the inner ear) works so fast, we would expect science to come to the point where we will develop proteins to perform ultra-fast molecular tasks. “

Andrew Griffith, MD, PhD, Senior Associate Dean of Research, College of Medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

In addition, the research has led to work in several laboratories to develop gene therapy for deafness caused by mutations in TMC1.

Collaborators of Dr Griffith, Jeffrey Holt, PhD, Professor of Otolaryngology and Neurology, and Gwenaelle Geleoc, PhD, Assistant Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, also receive the ARO Pioneer in Basic Science Award for 2021 The husband-wife team was at the University of Virginia and is now at Harvard University.

“The identity of the transduction channels is of both fundamental and translational importance for the therapy of genetic disorders of the inner ear,” the BRA wrote in announcing the awards. “This highly significant discovery is the direct product of a decade or more of innovative and virtuoso experiments that reflect scientific vision, insight and tenacity.”

Dr Griffith joined UTHSC College of Medicine last summer, after serving at the National Institutes of Health for 14 years, primarily at the National Institute on deafness and other communication disorders. Dr Griffith was also an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Medical scientist Dr Griffith says his goal at UTHSC is to grow the research enterprise at the College of Medicine in a way that enhances the research, education, clinical care and community outreach missions of university. “My vision overlaps in the area of ​​training,” he says. “I would like to improve the pipeline of physician-scientists at college, undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels.”

He also wants to increase connection and collaboration between campus and state researchers. He emphasizes that the research will be recognized by the BRA next month as an example of success achieved by a multidisciplinary team.

“I was a geneticist,” he says. “I worked with physiologist colleagues. Different skill sets bring different ideas.


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